On commencement and kindness

Book review: George Saunders' "Congratulations, by the way"

The Spectrum

Book:Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness

Author:George Saunders

Release Date:April 22, 2014

Publisher:Random House

As commencement approaches, grads-to-be often find themselves caught between anxieties for the future and nostalgia for the past. As the main event comes and goes and fond memories are pulled further away as major life choices are thrown before us, the present can fade from view.

Congratulations, by the way attempts to ground readers in the ephemeral moment, with a single goal in mind - "try to be kinder."

A transcription and expansion on George Saunders' convocation speech delivered to Syracuse University graduates in 2013, this is less of a book, per se, and more of a bound trinket, a gift idea for a literary-inclined graduate. The gravity of its message, however, is only emphasized by how concisely and simply it is delivered.

The widely praised author, most recently for The Tenth of December, is well known for his insightful, poignant short stories. Saunders' signature talent for addressing societal and cultural topics efficaciously is on full display throughout the book.

The slim volume stands at just 64 pages, half of them illustrated - every other page showing a changing night sky. The images begin with tens of atomized stars, growing increasingly connected with time, until every star is intertwined in a tight latticework that whites out the sky.

The speech moves beyond vague advice and swooning congratulations, the expected adulation limited to just a single line - ironically the title of the book. Saunders' words focus squarely on an otherwise lofty topic - kindness - encouraging its practice more often and more earnestly. He leaves defining the towering term precisely to the reader, deferring to his or her better judgment.

Saunders opens defining his greatest regret, "failures of kindness" - not spite, anger and the like so much as tepid, reserved responses to the needs of others. He cites selfishness and a seeming separation between the individual and those around them as the problem: why we aren't kinder.

His solution is simple, if not easy; he encourages those on the cusp of their adult lives to break the consuming cycle of ambition and achievement, to move toward something fundamentally beyond the self. Fearless, proactive and energetic pursuit of a kinder, loving and generous life is the only remedy for a self-centered life.

The speech this book is based on was transcribed and posted on The New York Times' website - it went viral shortly thereafter. The message in Saunders' words is simple; it speaks to something inherent in each of us that seeks communion with those around us, a pursuit too often stymied by anxiety, distraction and myopia.

Though the text and video of the speech can be tracked down easily online, Congratulations, by the way makes an excellent addition to any bookshelf and a timeless gift. The slender hardback stands as a reminder to rise above the minutia of post-grad life, to embrace the moment and one another.

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